William Robins, B.A. (Brown), M.Phil. (St. Andrews), Ph.D. (Princeton)
President and Vice-Chancellor
Associate Professor of English and Medieval Studies
Northrop Frye Hall, Rm 120
73 Queen's Park Crescent
Toronto ON M5S 1K7
E-mail: The Office of the President
For a complete listing of the Office of the President staff, please go to the Directory.
William Robins' Biography
William Robins, a professor of English and Medieval Studies and an internationally respected scholar, is the president of Victoria University in the University of Toronto. Robins is the 13th president in Victoria’s 183-year history.
Robins, who began his five-year term on July 1, 2015, has had extensive academic and administrative experience during his 20+ year career at the University of Toronto. He has been a fellow of Victoria College since 1996 when he was appointed to U of T’s Faculty of Arts & Science.
In 2009, he served as acting principal of Victoria College and in 2013 served as acting vice-dean, faculty and academic life, for the Faculty of Arts & Science. He also served as director of U of T’s graduate English program, one of the largest graduate humanities programs in Canada.
“Victoria College has a noble history of understanding how education contributes to human flourishing, while Emmanuel College also imbues the Vic community with the United Church’s abiding concern for social justice,” said Robins. “Victoria University will continue to thrive, largely because of this distinctive vision, its generous alumni support and its place within one of the world’s great research universities.”
In 2014, Robins received the Outstanding Teaching Award of the Faculty of Arts & Science and, in 2013, was made an affiliated fellow of the American Academy in Rome. He is the author and editor of numerous scholarly publications. His primary research focus is on the production and transmission of vernacular literary texts in 14th century England and Italy. Classical traditions, religious practices, and popular modes of storytelling are all topics that he has pursued. His research has been supported by the Fulbright Program and Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.
Robins currently chairs the provost’s advisory committee on the University of Toronto Libraries and is chair of the humanities panel of the Connaught program of research funding. In 2008, he initiated Canada’s first annual conference on medieval literature, the Canada Chaucer Seminar, which he continues to chair. He also serves on the program committee of the New Chaucer Society, the largest professional body in his field.
Robins holds a BA from Brown University, a master’s degree from the University of St. Andrews and a PhD from Princeton University.
Duties and Responsibilities of the President of Victoria University
The President and Vice-Chancellor is the senior executive officer of Victoria University and is responsible to its governing body, the Board of Regents, for its academic and administrative operation.
The President provides inspirational, strategic, academic and financial leadership, and works co-operatively within Victoria University and with the University of Toronto to strengthen and expand programs and activities in ways that exemplify Victoria University’s mission.
The President represents Victoria University with the external community to advance its mission and vision, increase its resources and well-being, and raise its profile locally, provincially, nationally and internationally.
October 2018–2019 Vic Report Messages
A Community of Creativity
From my office window I can see a group of students rehearsing for an upcoming outdoor production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Emmanuel quad. These annual outdoor performances by the Victoria College Drama Society (VCDS) are magical, enchanting audiences under the campus’ trees as summer yields to autumn and the term gets underway. Vic’s tradition of dramatic creativity is impressive. The 2017 Vic entry for the U of T Drama Festival was an ambitious and gratifying full-fledged musical; written, acted, and directed by students, A Perfect Bowl of Pho wooed the judges and won top prize. Those students have since started a production company to take Pho on the road and to improve opportunities for Asian-Canadians on the stage. Last year was a milestone season for the VDCS, their 100th year, and this year they begin their second century with another exciting slate of shows. Showcasing their exuberant creative energy on the stage, the students today continue a long and rich Vic tradition.
Creativity in the arts is in full force at Vic. In the College’s Creative Expression and Society program young novelists and poets hone their craft, while the stream of Vic One named after movie director Norman Jewison Vic 4T9, Hon. 01 inspires a new generation of artists and audiences. The campus signals the centrality of artistic vision to the University’s mission in other ways as well. The Cat’s Eye pub, after all, is named after a novel by Margaret Atwood Vic 6T1, Hon. 8T7. Sculptures and paintings grace our buildings (including the collection of Inuit carvings recently donated by David Bernhardt Vic 5T8, described in this issue on page 16). The library is renowned for its rare copies of books by writers such as William Blake and Virginia Woolf, and of personal documents by hundreds of Canadian writers. Vic students value these collections both as inspiration and as materials for very unique research projects.
Working within limitations, understanding one’s materials, connecting to one’s audience, listening attentively to collaborators: creativity is central to all aspects of Vic’s broad-based education, not just artistic expression. Creativity is about spotting opportunities and fashioning ways to seize them. Canadian hip-hop artist Tasha Schumann, the alumni speaker at this fall’s orientation ceremonies, spoke eloquently of finding at Vic a supportive community that encouraged her to experiment, to throw ideas against the wall to see what sticks. That community of curiosity and experimentation is incredibly stimulating in the classroom as well. The broad-based education offered at the University of Toronto graduates students who are capable of analyzing complex ideas, texts, and data sets, of seeing what others have missed, and of communicating their discoveries with clarity and precision. Vic’s small classes and research opportunities help students bring their intellectual curiosity into the open, as they become not passive recipients of information but active creators of new knowledge.
This aspect of Vic’s educational philosophy is what I call “Creative Inquiry” in my recent discussion of Presidential Priorities endorsed by the Victoria University Board of Regents in February 2018. Our approach to education helps students to evaluate topics from multiple perspectives, to understand the implications of arguments advanced by others, and to respond persuasively with arguments of their own. Everything we do is designed so that when students graduate they will be confident in their ability to work productively both individually and as part of a team, to contribute to the betterment of society, and to solve problems with intensity, effectiveness and creativity.
Creative inquiry cuts across classroom studies, extracurriculars, and our students’ concern for the needs of the wider world. Any student wishing to know how central these ideas are at Vic need only come to the centre of campus, sit on the bench next to the sculpture of Northrop Frye Vic 3T3, Emm 3T6, and read engraved in bronze his words from The Educated Imagination: “The fundamental job of the imagination in ordinary life… is to produce, out of the society we
have to live in, a vision of the society we want to live in.”
That sculpture of Frye is also visible outside my window. The rehearsing students are now taking a break beside it, joking with the bronze eminence. It is a sunny September day, and the campus is filled with energy for another year of curiosity and conversation.
Conscientious Engagement Beyond Vic
Victoria University is well known for a distinctive approach to education. The personalized, broad based education championed at Victoria College—through face-to-face conversations in a supportive community—helps students to evaluate topics from multiple perspectives, to respect the viewpoints of others, and to respond persuasively with arguments of their own. Combined with a rich tradition of graduates who have gone on to contribute to our city, our country and our world, these ideals encourage Vic students to build bridges between their academic studies and their conscientious engagement with the worlds beyond the campus.
As I think about the life of the College over the last few months, I am struck by the many occasions we have had to celebrate Vic students, alumni and friends who have received public recognition for their successes and public service. Among our students, for example, special congratulations are in order for Edil Ga’al Vic 1T8, who has won a Rhodes Scholarship to pursue a Master of Science in African studies at Oxford: “She is a wonderful example,” in the words of Vic Principal Angela Esterhammer, “of the way Vic students apply their learning and research for the benefit of society.” Another shout should go out for the terrific achievements of Alina Dormann on the volleyball court, in her demanding life science program and as a volunteer: she has just received the Governor General’s Academic All-Canadian Commendation, bestowed upon the country’s top student athletes.
Victoria alumni continue to inspire us, as five recent appointments to the Order of Canada testify. Alexandra Johnston Vic 6T1, Hon. 1T4 transformed an entire academic field, the study of early English drama, even as she broke ground for generations of female academic leaders in Canada; a past principal of Victoria College, she is a pillar of the Vic community. John Kirk Howard Vic 6T5 has been recognized for his commitment to Canadian writing and publishing; just last year a group of Vic undergraduates had the thrill of publishing their research results as a book with his Dundurn Press. Christina Jennings Vic 7T4 has been recognized for her “commitment to the Canadian film industry and for her promotion of women in this field;” Vic students will know Blake Goldring’s Vic 8T1 name already because it graces the wonderful Goldring Student Centre at the heart of campus; the Order of Canada will tell them he is also a stalwart advocate for veterans and their families. Don Lawson Hon. 9T8, a member of our Board of Regents for many years, and the recipient of a Vic honorary degree, has been honoured for improving career counselling services for underserved populations in Canada. The remarkable careers of these five inductees provide inspiring examples for our students, and their continued involvement at Vic makes the life of the College more rewarding for all.
As I take this moment to shine a light on the accolades earned by members of the Vic community, I am aware that, for many of our students, such stories of success will seem almost too remote to serve as inspiration. Most of our students are still making their way, still unsure about how their talents will find purchase on the world. Especially in this age of social media profiles, the continual comparisons of oneself to others too often generate anxiety and self-doubt. Vic offers many supports for navigating this tricky stage of transition. One of the most useful supports is to welcome alumni back to campus to give fireside chats or to serve as mentors: when alumni admit that they were similarly unclear about their life’s direction, or when they recall how a teacher or friend offered a crucial vote of confidence, our students are eager to hear more. Stories of resilience, of trying again and again, are just as inspiring as stories about finally catching the prize.
When Victoria students graduate, we want them to be confident in their ability to work productively, both individually and as part of a team, to employ their talents to the benefit of their communities and to solve problems with creativity, intensity and effectiveness. As we develop special programs for students to hone these skills and apply them beyond the campus walls, I hope that you will join us in preparing students to excel in whatever endeavours come next.
The Fire of Undergraduate
A few weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of visiting a study room in the beautiful Pratt Library, in the company of Victoria University’s chancellor, Carole Taylor, O.C., Vic 6T7, Hon. 1T2. There we met five undergraduate students working as a research team for a Vic faculty member, Ira Wells. Their project is to produce the first critical biography of Norman Jewison, C.C, Vic 4T9, Hon. 0T1, one of Canada’s preeminent film directors, a graduate of Victoria College, and from 2004–2010, chancellor of Victoria University. Jewison has donated his personal archives to Vic, and the students in that room were carefully combing through boxes containing original letters, drafts and media clippings, gathering material that will contribute to a fuller understanding of the significance and social impact of Jewison and his films.
Victoria University aims to be at the forefront of current efforts to reconceive the teaching and research aims of Canadian higher education. Since the 1960s, universities in North America have distinguished sharply between their research and teaching missions. Research was seen as the discovery and publication of new knowledge by professors and graduate students, while teaching entailed the dissemination of knowledge to undergraduates through classroom instruction. As our educational environment changes, a new model is emerging where the teaching of undergraduates and the research endeavours of universities are increasingly intertwined. This new model is especially suited to U of T, with its extensive undergraduate programs and strength as Canada’s premier research university. Victoria College is playing a leading role in this important shift by making undergraduate research a prime area for innovation and by including new research initiatives in the sciences, the social sciences and the humanities.
Through their involvement in research projects students turn their chosen academic interests into a set of sophisticated skills. Through research, students understand more deeply the parameters, methods and ethics of their areas of study; they participate in new forms of interpretation such as hospital labs, digital maker spaces and entrepreneurship hubs; they gain experience in project design, problem solving and data analysis; and they cultivate habits of communication, teamwork, independence and public engagement. Students become active creators of knowledge at the cutting edge of their disciplines
Vic is well positioned to contribute to the reorganization of undergraduate creative inquiry. It has academically strong students, faculty fellows with rigorous research profiles, a library rich with resources, as well as the graduate research strengths of its sister college, Emmanuel. The campus is home to thriving intellectual centres such as the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, the Northrop Frye Centre and the Centre for the Study of Religion and Its Contexts.
One of my four presidential priorities is to “Engage Undergraduate Students as Active Creators of Knowledge.” In the last few years Victoria College has created a position of undergraduate research coordinator, launched an Undergraduate Research Day and appointed undergraduate fellows at the Northrop Frye Centre. Vic also coordinates with the Jackman Humanities Institute for the successful Scholars-in-Residence program, where students work on faculty led research projects in the humanities. The Jewison biography project I mentioned above is one of this year’s Scholars-in-Residence offerings.
“Education,” said W.B. Yeats, “is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.” Experience shows that to fan the fire of curiosity and discovery, nothing surpasses a research opportunity in a student’s chosen field. In the coming years, we will be continuing to help Vic’s teaching staff and research centres broaden opportunities for undergraduate research, and continue to increase the capacity of the libraries to contribute to such cutting-edge projects. To ensure that these initiatives succeed, we are working with our partners at U of T and our donor community to achieve efficient, collaborative structures, appropriate spaces, and reliable resourcing for existing and new undergraduate research programs. I hope that you will join us in celebrating the academic mission of Victoria College as increasingly it becomes a place where creative research thrives, not only for our stellar faculty members, but also for our eager undergraduates.
Every day from my window I see the beautiful red sandstone of Old Vic. Commissioned when Victoria University decided to move from Cobourg in 1890, the Victoria College Building on the northeast corner of Queen’s Park opened for classes in 1892, and has been a hub of Vic life ever since.
When I look at the building I am reminded of its history. I am reminded, for example, that Victoria’s decision to join the emerging provincial university in Toronto was not an easy one. Dislocation from the Cobourg community and financial costs were major concerns. Differences in mission caused even more worry. Victoria belonged to a British tradition of small colleges whose purpose was to cultivate the minds and the character of individuals, often in light of a religious understanding of what makes for a good life. The new provincial university would be modeled instead upon the latest in large public universities, especially those in Germany, which were designed primarily to produce and disseminate knowledge. Would these missions complement or clash with each other?
Joining the larger university was not inevitable. Indeed, the Presbyterian college in Kingston declined the invitation, as did the Baptist college in Toronto. These went on to become Queen’s University and McMaster University. If Victoria had stayed in Cobourg, it might have developed as they did. Instead, Victoria opted in, becoming the first smaller university to add its forces to
the larger University of Toronto enterprise.
The model of federation that Vic pioneered was followed by two other autonomous universities: Trinity in 1904 and St. Michael’s in 1910. Forty per cent of the Faculty of Arts & Science students on the St. George campus are registered at a federated college. Federated relationships sprang up elsewhere in the province, too: there are now 16 smaller universities federated with larger universities in Ontario. While smaller and larger institutions may have different guiding missions, the success of this federated model proves that their missions can be mutually beneficial. The creation and dissemination of knowledge, on the one hand, and the
personalized development of character on the other, can be easily aligned, thanks to our common commitment to provide students with an excellent, rewarding education.
The Faculty of Arts & Science, which enrols more than 25,000 undergraduates, has the benefits as well as the drawbacks of size. The seven Arts & Science colleges allow students to belong to smaller communities of friendship and support. With the world-class academic offerings of a top research university, and the welcoming community of a liberal arts college, students can get the best of both worlds.
At Vic this is especially noticeable. Because of our autonomy, our history and our mission, we have a responsibility to be as nimble, thoughtful and innovative as possible in improving the student experience. Vic’s innovations are often later adopted elsewhere at U of T. For example, recognizing the power of small seminars for cohorts of first-year students, Vic launched the flagship Vic One program in 2003; after years of success, the program has been imitated at many other colleges and divisions. Another example involves mental health. In 2012 Victoria’s Office of the Dean of Students initiated an annual conference, “Minding Our Minds,” that brings together students, faculty, staff, and health-care professionals to talk about mental health on campus; this fall, seven years later, the Faculty of Arts & Science borrowed the Vic format as it grappled with how best to discuss these pressing concerns. In many other areas as well, important innovations continue to be launched both at Victoria College and at Emmanuel College.
This fall, Victoria University embarked on a round of strategic planning. As we conceptualize the future of Vic over the next five years, a key question arises: how can we best harness the autonomy, nimbleness, and responsibilities of our federated relationship? Victoria University will continue to be an eager contributor to the remarkable (and remarkably complex) mission of the University of Toronto, as we have been since work on the Old Vic building started in 1890. We will continue to ask how we can put our shoulder to the wheel, even as we stay true to our mission to personally support individual students as they learn about themselves and their world.
Victoria University Senior Administrative Management Team
President and Vice Chancellor
William Robins, B.A. (Brown), M.Phil. (St. Andrews), Ph.D. (Princeton)
Principal of Victoria College
Angela Esterhammer, B.A. (Toronto), Ph.D. (Princeton)
Principal of Emmanuel College
Michelle Voss Roberts, B.A. (Calvin College), MTS (Emory), Ph.D (Emory)
Dean of Students
Kelley Castle, MA
Yvette Ali, MSc (Toronto)
Lisa J. Sherlock, MA, MLS (Toronto)
Executive Director, Alumni Affairs and Advancement
Louise Yearwood, MPNL (Carleton)
Director of Communications
Meghan Kilty, MCM (McMaster/Syracuse)
Victoria College 1841–1884
Matthew Richey 1849-1850
Egerton Ryerson 1850-1854
Samuel S. Nelles 1854-1884
Victoria University 1884–Present
President and Chancellor
Samuel S. Nelles 1884-1887
Nathanael Burwash 1887-1912
Richard Pinch Bowles 1913-1930
Edward Wilson Wallace 1930-1941
Walter T. Brown 1941-1944
President and Vice Chancellor
Walter T. Brown 1944-1949
Harold Bennett 1949-1950
Arthur Bruce Barbour Moore 1950-1970
John Edwin Hodgetts 1970-1972
Goldwin S. French 1973-1987
Eva Milada Kushner 1987-1994
Roseann Runte 1994-2001
Paul W. Gooch 2001-2015
William Robins 2015-